The country's logistics infrastructure stretching from New England down to Virginia and west into Ohio and the Great Lakes braced today for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, a potential mega-storm threatening to disrupt freight services for days and perhaps as long as a week or more.
As of 4 pm Eastern Time on Monday, the storm was about 100 miles from making landfall around Atlantic City, N.J., according to projections from Earth Networks, a Germantown, Md.-based environmental research firm that also operates a weather center. But the storm, which is expected to hit land late this evening or very early Tuesday, was already wreaking havoc on low-lying coastlines from North Carolina to New Jersey, with the worst of it well ahead for the region, said Mark Hoekzema, Earth Networks' chief meteorologist.
The hurricane is expected to collide with a cold front coming from the West, which is likely to increase Sandy's ferocity. The cold front will also pull the storm westward and delay it from following a normal East Coast tropical storm's path of speeding up the Seaboard before heading towards the Canadian Maritimes and then out to sea. As a result, the storm is expected to linger through Wednesday across a 500-mile area populated by 50 million people. By Thursday, Sandy should weaken as it heads eastbound towards the Atlantic.
Adding to the angst is that the storm will hit during a full moon that will raise already high tides even more. An expected storm surge around midnight could raise water levels to 11 feet above normal high tide, depending on the location.
In the Great Lakes, a key shipping point, wave heights could reach 22 to 31 feet. The Lakes, however, will not experience storm surges that are more common in coastal areas. In a phenomenon that Hoekzema said he's never seen before from a tropical storm, blizzard conditions are likely to envelop high-elevation levels in the Appalachian region.
Hoekzema said wind gusts of 30 to 70 miles per hour, combined with downed trees, power lines, traffic signals, and maybe as much as a foot of standing water from rainfall, will cause severe disruptions to freight and passenger transportation systems. "It will be a number of days before it gets back to normal," he said, noting that millions will be without power at least through the rest of the week and possibly into the weekend.
Heavy rains and enormous waves will buffet the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and Lake Huron, causing extended shipping delays, he said.
In a statement, FedEx Corp. said it is prepared to "provide service to the best of our ability" in the affected areas. The Memphis-based company urged shippers to "contact your recipients to verify whether their location is open or able to receive deliveries" before and after the storm. The storm may leave hundreds of damaged facilities in its wake and could keep thousands away from work for days.
"Shipments not delivered, due to road closures and local restrictions, will be secured in one of our facilities," the statement said. "Delivery will be attempted when it is safe to do so."
UPS Inc. has routed its European flights bound for East Coast points like Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., to its primary air hub in Louisville, Ky. The Atlanta-based company's information technology (IT) facilities in New Jersey and Maryland are closed for normal operations, but employees are working remotely to process shipment information, according to Susan L. Rosenberg, a UPS spokeswoman. Any IT-related contingencies will be handled at the company's data center in Alpharetta, Ga., a northern suburb of Atlanta, she said.
Rosenberg said UPS performed limited delivery this morning in Manhattan. However, it avoided the low-lying lower Manhattan area that may bear the brunt of the storm surge as it makes landfall, she said. Some facilities of UPS Freight, the company's less-than-truckload (LTL) arm, have already closed, she said.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's marine terminals and the Port of Virginia have closed. As of this morning, the Port Authority's four airports remained open, but airlines had canceled flights there.
CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp., the two main Eastern railroads, are telling customers to expect at least three days of traffic delays in the affected areas. In a statement on its web site, Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX said its network has been closed from Richmond, Va., to Albany, N.Y. The closure extends as far west as Brunswick, Md., CSX said.
Norfolk-based Norfolk Southern said in its web alert that it was experiencing traffic delays on its system. However, the alert did not say that the system had been shut down.